It’s mid-August, and while the world has turned its attention to football (as it should) what gets lost in the shuffle is that we are, believe it or not, right around 80 days until the start of the college hoops season. Opening night on November 6 may seem like a lifetime from now, but make no mistake, it will get here before you know it.
So with such a short time between now and the start of the season it’s never too early to look ahead. Which is exactly what I’ve been doing the last few weeks here at KSR. A few weeks ago I looked at a Way Too Early SEC basketball projection, and this week I decided to bring it a little closer to home with Kentucky. Specifically, I wondered to myself, “for Kentucky to have a successful season next year” what needs to happen? More importantly, who needs to play well?
With that, it brings me to this article today: Ranking the most important Kentucky basketball players heading into next season.
Now before we get started, a few disclaimers: This is a ranking of the guys who will be most important specifically to next season, as the Wildcats pursue a potential national title. This isn’t who was good in high school, who is the best NBA prospect, or who could evolve down the line into a star in Lexington. It is specifically about next season and the impact they will have.
With that, who are the most important Wildcats next year? Let’s take a look, as I rank all the scholarship players.
10) Dontaie Allen, F (Freshman)
This is just about the only “easy” ranking on this list.
That’s because while the reports out of summer camp are that Allen could be ready to go for the start of the season and could have an instant impact, we just don’t know for sure. Not after Allen sat out all of summer workouts while recovering from a car crash.
The good news is that the crash seems like it will have little impact on Allen’s future on the court. But until we know for sure when he will be back, it’s tough to put him any higher on this list.
9) Nick Richards, C (Junior)
It’s impossible to put together a list like this without someone feeling slighted. And in this case, that burden falls on Richards. Which is a shame. Because make no mistake: He will have a major impact on this year’s team.
The problem is, it’s hard to see him having a larger impact than anyone below him on this list.
That’s because while Richards does provide a skill-set that is completely unique to him (rim protection), defense is only part of basketball. And the early returns out of summer workouts are that his offensive repertoire hasn’t improved significantly enough where he will make a major leap in 2019-2020.
So, with that it seems fair to ask: If Richards hasn’t improved dramatically on offense, just how much will Kentucky play him? Especially on a roster that has all the pieces to run really good and effective small ball lineups.
Truth be told, I hope Richards proves me wrong. But right now, it just seems hard to put him any higher on this list.
8) Nate Sestina, F (Redshirt Senior)
Full disclosure: I’ve said since the day Nate Sestina committed that I wonder just how much he’ll be able to contribute this season. Yes, I know it’d be easy to look at Sestina as a grad transfer, see the impact that Reid Travis had last year, and assume that Sestina will be able to put up similar numbers. If only it were that easy. Remember, Travis came from a Power 5 conference, where he earned All-Conference honors, and played against a slew of future NBA players in the frontcourt. Sestina came from the Patriot League, and it’s just hard to know how a player will transition from playing against Lehigh and Lafayette every night, to now facing LSU, Tennessee and Florida.
But while I do have concerns about Sestina’s ability to transition from low major to high major, I also can’t deny this: He brings things to the table that no one else on this roster does. Specifically, he should provide size, bulk, physicality and toughness around the rim that the younger players on this roster simply won’t be able to.
The fact that he also has the ability to step out, hit jumpers and space the floor makes him that much more valuable, and because of it, Sestina should still see big-time playing time in 2019-2020.
7) Johnny Juzang, G/F (Freshman)
If you read to the end of this article the one thing you’ll notice is that I drop the word “versatility” about as often as Rick Pitino drops excuses when talking about Stripper-Gate. When it comes to this roster, there is no avoiding it.
And there may be no player that epitomizes Kentucky’s move to versatile, position-less basketball quite like Juzang.
Put simply, Juzang can just do so…many… things on the basketball court. He’s a guy who can handle the ball in a pinch, create off the dribble, and as his AAU coach told me this spring, score on all three levels. Maybe most importantly, he and Tyrese Maxey will likely be the Wildcats most consistent three-point shooters this season. You simply can’t put a price on the floor-spacing that he will provide for this team, and the fact that he can probably guard anywhere from the 2 to 4 positions (depending on the opponent) certainly won’t hurt either.
In the end, I have no idea how many points he’ll score or minutes he’ll play. But to me, Juzang is one of the sneaky big keys to success for the Wildcats this season.
6) Tyrese Maxey, G (Freshman)
Again, to be clear, this isn’t a list of the best long-term NBA prospects at Kentucky this season. If it were, Maxey may be No.1. It also isn’t a list of pure output. Maxey may end up being the team’s leading scorer. Instead, it’s about value and while Maxey is really, insanely, extremely valuable, it is one person’s opinion (mine) that he isn’t more valuable than the guys below him on this list.
But with that said, he is still again, extremely, EXTREMELY valuable.
The reason being, that he can do just about everything on the floor that you could ever want from a guard. He can handle the ball, create for others, play off the ball, score off the dribble and just might be the best three-point shooter on this roster. He’s also a dog on defense. Again, there isn’t a single thing you’d want from a guard on your roster that Maxey isn’t capable of doing.
The only thing that Maxey is lacking at this point is experience, which will come by March.
This kid is going to be a stud. And clearly has insane value to this roster.
5) Immanuel Quickley, G (Sophomore)
Again, it’s all about experience, which is why I have Quickley slightly ahead of Maxey on this list. Not because I’m comparing them as NBA prospects. But because experience wins in March. Just ask Virginia. Or Villanova. Or North Carolina a few years ago. And Quickley does have major experience, as he played in all 37 games for Kentucky last season and got major burn during their run in March. You think that won’t help him when things get tight on the road, or in the NCAA Tournament next March?
But more than just experience what I love about Quickley is his toughness. Remember, this was a guy who began the year as the starter at point guard, moved off the ball, and then eventually to the bench as Ashton Hagans’ backup. Yet despite it, you never heard him complain (at least publicly) and instead, this summer he just got back into the lab (as the kids say) and go to work. And the early returns are that he has been awesome in the Wildcats’ summer workouts.
Furthermore, let’s never forget, this is a kid who came to Kentucky as a McDonald’s All-American and as a recruit that everyone in college basketball wanted. He can play. And I fully expect 2019-2020 to be a breakout season for Quickley.
4) Keion Brooks, F (Freshman)
3) Kahlil Whitney, F (Freshman)
So, I kind of just lumped these guys together because the bottom-line is that they both kind of bring the same thing. Each is a big wing, who can step out, handle the ball, shoot from downtown and also play in and around the rim. They also bring versatility – there’s that buzz word again! – to this team. With each of them in the lineup, Kentucky can either play really small with Brooks/Whitney playing the “four” or they can play big, with one of these two wings playing at the three, with EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards (or potentially Nate Sestina) on the court at the same time.
Now, why are they lumped together? Because it’s just impossible to know who will actually contribute more once the season starts. While Whitney came in with more high school buzz, the early returns (including from KSR’s own Jack Pilgrim) are that both were impressive in summer workouts, and each could contribute in a big way.
My hunch is that Whitney – coming off a big weekend at the Nike Skills Academy in LA – will probably have the upper-hand to start the season. But don’t sleep on Brooks coming along as the season goes on.
2) Ashton Hagans, G (Sophomore)
I’ve already written at length about Hagans this spring, as a player who I believe could be a breakout guy not just at Kentucky, but nationally. Two months after I wrote that article, I still stand by it.
The bottom line is that Hagans has already proven to be one of the elite, on-ball defenders in all of college basketball. The question now is, can his offense catch up? Can he be more consistent getting to the rim, more consistent shooting, and do it all while setting up others?
It’s a question only he can answer. But, if Hagans can evolve on offense to go with his elite on-ball defense, he could be one of the best guards in college basketball. And Kentucky’s ceiling as a team will completely change.
1) EJ Montgomery, F (Sophomore)
It’s interesting because had you asked me to rank these players a week ago or a month ago I would have told you that Hagans was the most important player.
However, I was reading Kyle Tucker’s really good piece from a few weeks ago on the returning players next season and one line jumped out at me. In it, someone was discussing last season’s team, and specifically PJ Washington and Reid Travis and how many “free throws and layups” they created last season. That line really did stick with me, and made me realize just how many easy baskets, within five feet from the rim Kentucky was able to get a year ago. It also made me realize how different is it for a team when they know they can count on 20-30 easy points right around the rim every night.
Which brings us back to Montgomery.
Yes, he’s a completely different player from Washington and Travis and more of a hybrid forward who is comfortable playing away from the basket.
Still, you simply replicate the value of a guy who can get you points at the rim, and Montgomery should do that better than everyone else next season.
Add in the overall improvement in his game, and to me, it’s little debate: EJ Montgomery is the most important player to Kentucky’s success next year.